News Brief

San Francisco poised to reject police facial recognition

San Francisco’s City Council is set to vote on an ordinance restricting the use of surveillance tech by law enforcement. The May 14 vote would also outright ban the use of facial recognition to identify people in surveillance camera footage, noting that “it shall be unlawful for any Department to obtain, retain, access, or use…any Face Recognition Technology.”

The ordinance justifies itself through privacy and justice concerns.

“The propensity for facial recognition technology to endanger civil rights and civil liberties substantially outweighs its purported benefits,” the ordinance reads, “and the technology will exacerbate racial injustice and threaten our ability to live free of continuous government monitoring.” The mention of “racial injustice” refers to the well-documented ways facial recognition can discriminate against racial minorities.

The move is part of an emerging backlash to cutting-edge policing technologies in the U.S. Other cities have passed similar ordinances, but San Francisco would become the first American city to outright ban police facial recognition. Similar criticism has hampered the spread of algorithmic policing elsewhere. Last month, the Los Angeles Police Department announced it would stop using highly controversial “predictive policing” software.

Despite these moments of backlash, however, it’s not entirely clear whether most people support limiting facial recognition. In 2018, a Brookings survey found that 50% of Americans wanted limits on law enforcement use of facial recognition, but a 2019 survey by the Center for Data Innovation found weaker support for facial recognition regulation.

In the meantime, American authorities continue to use facial recognition on a mass scale. A 2016 U.S. government report (see page 48) revealed that the FBI could access over 400 million photos of American residents for facial recognition purposes. In business, too, retailers are beginning to use facial recognition to collect information about customers to enhance experiences such as shopping and travel. The effectiveness of facial recognition software has dramatically improved in the past decade, thanks largely due to leaps in AI technology, like deep neural networks.